Most translators are the worthiest of people: gifted, erudite, hardworking, and modest in their material needs. People who crave money and fame choose other jobs. Babysitting would pay better, though that’s true of many intellectual and creative professions these days. And even when the work you’ve translated succeeds brilliantly, few readers even notice that it’s yours. After all, it has someone else’s name on it.

For most of the history of publishing, with the exception of the highest-profile works (for instance, Homer), even those who were searching might have had trouble finding the translator’s name. Paid translation was often seen not as a vocation but as a quick source of income, a more intellectual version of taking in piecework. In the nineteenth century Russian revolutionaries earned their meager portions of bread and tea by staying up all night translating political tracts and newspaper articles in flea-ridden rented rooms in St. Petersburg, Moscow, London, or Geneva. Mikhail Bakunin, an impecunious father of anarchism, was translating Marx’s Capital for 1,200 rubles (around $24,000 today) when his friend Sergei Nechaev persuaded him to ditch the tedious work and return to the more glamorous business of fomenting revolution. When Bakunin protested that he had already spent his 300-ruble advance, Nechaev sent the publisher a threatening letter in the name of a nonexistent secret revolutionary committee. Leave Bakunin alone—or else. The publisher wrote off the loss.

Today, translators who are not content to toil in obscurity fight for their rights with the nearest weapon to hand: social media. They promote the authors they’ve translated, and they promote themselves. They muse about the nature of translation, post teasers from their latest projects, and share details of their private lives. Some post flattering selfies in states of undress. Like everyone else on social media, they try to be famous. The most energetic translator-activist on social media in recent years has been Jennifer Croft, an American who in 2021 organized a successful open letter from writers and translators demanding that translators’ names appear on book covers. As the translator of Olga Tokarczuk, winner of the 2018 Nobel Prize in Literature, Croft had unusual authority. When she translated Tokarczuk’s The Books of Jacob (2022), her name was on the cover and she received royalties, unusual for translators.

Croft was right: translators’ names should always appear on the book cover. The quality of their work can make the difference between joy and bafflement, though the reader may never be certain what share of pleasure or irritation can be attributed to their efforts. There is a tragic surfeit of ham-handed translations that make it impossible to lose oneself in what was once a smooth-flowing text, and a quiet canon of excellent translations that go unrecognized. Some eager translators improve sloppy, repetitious originals. This kind of editing in translation is a crime for those who cherish “fidelity” above all else. But isn’t translation always a kind of threesome?

Croft is also a writer, though the primary subject of her fiction is translation. In her new novel, The Extinction of Irena Rey, the narrator, an Argentinian translator named Emilia Martini (Emi for short), has sex with a handsome Swedish translator named Freddie. While they’re in bed she thinks about Irena Rey, the Polish Nobel favorite she and Freddie translate:

The stronger her presence became, the harder I fucked him until all of a sudden I was stunned by my own orgasm, an all-encompassing explosion, so that then when he turned me over and set me on all fours I felt like my body was just a shell that was bursting.

The next day Emi translates with alacrity, feeling “perfectly in sync” with her author. The Swedish sperm, a biological stand-in for the highest literary honor, has entered her, and her language takes wing. (Though she is the daughter of a condom manufacturer, Emi sometimes forgets to use protection.)

Here the translator is a spirit medium who calls forth the preverbal essence of great literature and transforms it in her body, speaking in tongues. This is translation as séance, as alchemy. Just as sex can express an impossible longing to become one with another person, translation evinces an impossible desire to become one with the original. Like sex sometimes does, translation produces a new, third being. Some translators fall in love with their authors; some sleep with them; some become obsessed, resentful, or jealous.

Croft is not in the school of translation that emphasizes word-by-word fidelity to the original. In a feature on her efforts in The New York Times, she referred to her translation of Tokarczuk’s Flights as their “love child,” explaining, “It’s Olga’s, but also it has all of these elements that are mine, these stylistic elements and these decisions that I made.” Croft described her method as “completely dismantling a book and then completely rebuilding it from the ground up.” Flights won the International Booker Prize, a prelude to Tokarczuk’s Nobel. “Jenny does not focus on language at all, but on what is underneath the language and what the language is trying to express,” Tokarczuk said. “So she explains the author’s intention, not just the words standing in a row one by one.”


The concupiscent Emi and Freddie are only two of a group of translators who are camped out in Irena Rey’s custom-built Japanese cottage at the edge of the primeval Białowieża Forest, near Poland’s border with Belarus. Their “Author,” whom Emi worships as a goddess, has the custom of gathering them together there to translate her top-secret new works. Freddie is a first-timer, but most of the group’s members have long histories with one another. For the first portion of the novel, the narration is in the first-person plural, and the translators are referred to not by their names but by their languages: English, Ukrainian, Spanish, and so on. Emi describes how they were born “from the foam of a novel called Lena” the first time they convened near Białowieża. When the Author vanishes, they choose to remain in the house, continuing to translate as they try to solve the mystery of her disappearance. A baroque, quasi-magical realist story ensues, full of surprise twists and ironic asides.

Croft has buttressed her novel with an elaborate metafictional architecture. The book begins with a section titled “Warning: A Note from the Translator.” Said translator, who is named Alexis, explains that this has been the hardest translation of her career because she is one of the main characters in the book, and the author’s nemesis. In translation, she writes, “trust is crucial,” and “translation is being forced to write a book again.” Yet in the book she is a monster, though a beautiful one. This was the first of many implausible moments. What editor would allow a book’s villain to be its translator? And could there ever be a tornado in forested eastern Poland? Why would a parrot migrate across Eastern Europe? Would a Berlin airport lost and found hold multiple Patek Philippes? What famous writer would choose her translators based on a combination of looks and traumatic family history?

The metafictional apparatus continues with plentiful footnotes from Alexis. Footnote 1: “A sizable excerpt of my translation of Irena’s novel Szara eminencja first appeared in a Romanian magazine that adopted UK spelling for all words, including the first word of the title, Grey. Perhaps due to the outsize success of that excerpt, the US publisher made the unusual decision to preserve that spelling here.” Footnote 8: “In light of the fact that puns are the one category of language that is truly untranslatable, I have had to remove this author’s subsequent examples.” Footnote 26: “Ha, ha.” Footnote 33: “??” Footnote 69: “At this point it would be natural for the reader to wonder why I agreed to translate this book. My editor refused to let me have an afterword, as did this author, so I will talk about it here since not even my editor’s assistant is reading the footnotes at this point.” Her explanation, too long for me to quote, does not make this conceit plausible, though it contains plenty of clever observations about translation.

Emi describes learning Polish at the Polish House on Borges Street in Buenos Aires. (Why no Nabokov Avenue in The Extinction of Irena Rey, or at least a few tongues of pale fire? In keeping with our anti-Russian moment, there isn’t even a Russian translator in Irena’s squad, though the novel is set before 2022.) The Extinction has many long, eccentric lists, as befits a work of Latin American–style postmodernism. Croft also translates from Argentine Spanish. Her book Homesick was originally published in Argentina in 2014 as a novel under the title Serpientes y escaleras (Snakes and Ladders), before being published as a memoir in the US in 2019. Though the characters had invented names, the life stories and photographs in the US edition were taken from Croft’s life. In The Extinction of Irena Rey, Emi knows only a little about tornadoes, from “a strange book called Snakes and Ladders written for some reason in Argentine Spanish by the US translator of Olga Tokarczuk.”

Irena Rey is so great and so famous that every one of her works changes the world (at least according to Emi), “stitching up the world’s wounds with language.” She bears some resemblance to the leader of a cult, with good dramatic timing and a dictatorial streak. Because she doesn’t drink alcohol or eat meat, neither do her translators while staying at her house. Her partner is also a translator, though he has disappeared. (Olga Tokarczuk is a vegetarian and animal rights advocate with a partner who once worked as a translator.) Irena is a kind of forest witch—in the Slavic tradition, a Baba Yaga, but much better looking. She wears a black-magic amulet, and her furnishings include suits of armor, treasure chests, and a chandelier made of skulls. She writes with ink made from self-devouring mushrooms she grows herself, and “filaments of strummed silver” seem to hover “over her dark cascading hair.” (Unlike Olga Tokarczuk, Irena Rey does not have dreadlocks.) A “centauric goddess whose words would staunch calamities, hold our apocalypse at bay,” she smells of petrichor. Like many translators these days, Croft, or maybe Emi, is fond of obscure words: lenticels, pomiform, myrobalan, caltrop, ruderal.


Irena’s new novel is about “the world’s first true climate change artist and the first person to exceed a billion followers on Instagram, making her a sort of global empress, unprecedented in the history of Earth.” This heroine “was also Portugal’s foremost performer of fado, a gold medalist in rhythmic gymnastics, excellent at baking, and capable of taming the aurochs she summoned back from extinction to revivify Lascaux.” Emi sees the huge novel as “the epitome of art, the kind of art that makes a major impact, that spends a century or several blocking out the sun.” As she reads further, though, Emi suspects the novel is also suggesting that “our current extinction event…was the direct result of art,” since the creation of art requires destruction, art replacing nature. In this formulation, the category of “art” includes plastic waste.

Early in the novel Emi writes, “We were book people. We had yet to truly concern ourselves with earth.” The climate-dread aspect of the novel feels a bit rote, lost in the background like a late addition to a stage set. Białowieża Forest is depicted as a magical place of teeming life and prolific decay, a unique biological network soaked in the blood of history. This is accurate: Białowieża is not only one of the last remnants of the primeval forest that once covered Europe, but for centuries was the scene of battles, massacres, and partisan struggles. The forest-magic part of the novel never quite coalesces, either, despite the occasional appearance of a Slavic wood-goblin. Informed by Merlin Sheldrake’s 2020 best seller Entangled Life: How Fungi Make Our Worlds, Change Our Minds and Shape Our Futures, the fungal theme, like the forest and the climate apocalypse, is significant mainly as a metaphor for translation, with Team Irena imagining themselves as mycological networks that “stitch the world into a united and communicating whole.”

Translation is compared to recycling and mushrooms, but above all it is embodied by sex and conception, usually extramarital. It’s not just Freddie (who has a wife named Bogdana) and Emi. Ukrainian leaves his wife for Slovenian. Serbian discovers, to her surprise, that she is pregnant at forty-two. French hints that she has had a miscarriage. Emi is turning thirty-five and worried about her childbearing prospects; there are suggestions toward the end that she is pregnant with Freddie’s child. (Croft has talked about her fertility troubles online; she eventually gave birth to twins.) Halfway through we learn that Czech, aka Pavel, had an affair with Irena herself and got her pregnant. She was forty-four, another proof of her semidivine nature. But within months she miscarried, banished Czech, and told the others he had died.

This revelation prompts Emi to reflect, “Pavel had been sleeping with Irena” and “could, if I so desired, do the same things to my body that he had done to Our Author’s body, an idea that took my breath away.” The translators in The Extinction of Irena Rey long for intimate contact with genius, this being a novel in which genius is still a thing, at least from Emi’s perspective. Irena’s beautiful translators have sex with each other, but their liaisons are a stand-in for sex with the Author herself, or with the fungal network of literature—as a translation is a stand-in for the original text. I was reminded of the story of Pushkin’s affair with Calypso Polichroni, a beautiful Greek woman who was believed, probably falsely, to have slept with Byron. Pushkin couldn’t resist the lure of being one degree of sexual separation from his literary hero.

After Irena disappears, the translators go through her belongings and begin to question their assumptions about her numinous perfection. Emi is disappointed to discover that, like a human woman, Irena uses retinol and acids to fight wrinkles. Then Emi starts smearing her face with the Author’s serums. By the end of the book Alexis—the distressingly beautiful translator of this book and the object of Emi’s obsessive jealousy, which leads her to challenge Alexis to a nineteenth-century-style duel—is wearing Irena’s clothes, shoes, jewelry, makeup, and petrichor perfume, and has dyed her hair to look like Irena’s. “I never tried on purpose to become you, Irena,” Emi writes. “I don’t even think Alexis did. It was just that our task as your translators was to fill in for you, and even Alexis, in her own, different way, was dedicated to that task.”

Emi and Alexis represent two approaches to translation. Emi worships at the altar of sublime genius, seeing herself as Irena’s humble servant, never daring to develop any literary aspirations of her own or to break any of Irena’s rules. For her, it is sacrilege for a translator to become an author. She would never consider deleting even a sentence from Irena’s masterwork; anything Irena writes is like a message sent from God. Alexis, meanwhile, feels free to call a whole chapter of Irena’s new book “a little overwritten.” Emi is scandalized when Alexis subtweets Irena as she translates, editing without permission and skewing the meaning of the text. Over the course of the novel, however, the scales fall from Emi’s eyes. After the thriller-style denouement, Emi comes to believe that Irena is “not noble, but cheap, thieving. Base. Her genius wasn’t hers: It was everyone else’s.” Does this mean that Alexis was right? Is the Romantic cult of genius an outdated concept? Is literature inherently collaborative? Does the translator have the last word? The Author is certainly (spoiler alert) dead.

The Extinction of Irena Rey is bursting with energy and cleverness, Croft’s abundant linguistic gifts and stimulating ideas on display. She is clearly having fun with all her subplots, her Russian dolls and Easter eggs. There are mummies and canopic jars. The translators have a ritual group marriage and talk about making offerings to Perun, the Slavic thunder god. A stern editor could have turned this into a very funny, compact satire of the literary world, but Croft has ambitions to make the novel much more than that. Reading it feels like watching TV with someone who won’t stop changing the channels.

One of the subtler intertextual aspects of The Extinction of Irena Rey is its similarity to Tokarczuk’s satisfying 2009 literary thriller Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead. That novel wasn’t published in English until 2018, in a translation by Antonia Lloyd-Jones, Croft’s predecessor in the role of “English.” Drive Your Plow is itself highly intertextual, like many of Tokarczuk’s novels, and takes its title from a William Blake poem. The narrator is an eccentric older woman who lives in a remote, forested area on the Polish border with the Czech Republic. Like Irena Rey, she is witchy, fond of herbal tinctures and astrology, and obsessed with animal rights and the need to respect the forest. She was once a teacher and is helping a former student to translate Blake into Polish. Like Blake, she likes to capitalize nouns: her murdered dogs, for instance, are her Little Girls, whose death she will avenge. She kills a man with bark beetles, which also play a part in The Extinction of Irena Rey; at the end, she moves to Białowieża Entomological Station.

Drive Your Plow includes a character named the Writer, a summer resident in the forest. The narrator expresses skepticism about the nature of the Writer’s literary project:

A suspicion of fakery springs to mind—that such a Person is not him- or herself, but an eye that’s constantly watching, and whatever it sees it changes into sentences; in the process it strips reality of its most essential quality—its inexpressibility.

The translator’s task can be understood as a quest to return to this inexpressible core and transform it into new language, a second process of authorship as dangerous and powerful as the first.

The Extinction of Irena Rey, then, might be a way of rebuilding Drive Your Plow, this time with the addition of all the planks and nails of Croft’s own ideas about authorship and translation. Emi observes that “a translation is a new experience of something that is essentially, fundamentally the same.” But Drive Your Plow has a structural integrity that is missing from this frenetic novel. Olga Tokarczuk, a good sport, provided a noncommittal blurb: “Croft writes with a remarkable intensity.”